Sigiriya: An Evil King’s Rock Palace?

Lord of all he surveyed. Kasyapa’s view from atop Sigiriya Rock.

Shakespeare would have had a field day with the 5th century King Kasyapa. An illegitimate son of the King who was passed over as heir in favour of his legitimate younger brother, Kasyapa seized the throne by arresting his father. Legend has it that he then proceeded to execute him by walling him up alive.*

However, Kasyapa was then hated by his subjects, wracked by guilt, and seized by fear that his brother, who had fled into exile, would gather an army to avenge the death of their father. What to do? Well, Kasyapa decided to set up shop on a big rock in the middle of the jungle. This rock, in fact:

I mean, it’s certainly a declaration of intent. Especially when you paint it bright white, like Kasyapa did.

Lion Rock

Abandoning the capital, Anuradhapura, Kasyapa decided to recreate the mythical Buddhist city of Alakamanda atop his rock. Sri Lanka was at the time a wealthy trading island with a highly developed civilisation, and so Kasyapa had the resources to direct hundreds of thousands of men to make his vision a reality. He created a giant lion staircase (hence the modern name of ‘Sigiriya’ or ‘Lion Rock’) and built his place atop the rock, where he could be Lord of all he surveyed.

Yes, those are gigantic lion paws carved into the base of the rock.

He also planned elaborate landscape gardens, commissioned frescoes of half-naked women (you can still see some of these, but are not allowed to photograph  them), and painted the whole rock white. Sadly the palace has fallen into ruins and the white paint is completely gone, but you can still visit the ruins of Kasyapa’s city on the rocks.

Visiting Sigiriya

The downside is that you’ll have to pay $30 to do so, a fee that is high even by Sri Lanka’s generally extortionate ‘foreign prices’ standard. I debated it, but decided to cough up, and I’m glad I did.

Sigiriya is probably also not for you if you have a fear of heights: ascending to the rock involves scaling some metal steps drilled into the wall. Not having a fear of heights, this didn’t bother me, although I did wonder how on earth Kasyapa’s unfortunate minions lugged all of their construction materials up the giant rock face.

Probably not a great destination for people with vertigo.

There were many people at the entrance willing to offer their services as guide, but I declined, preferring to wander around and just soak in the atmosphere of the ruins. Being a history geek I’d of course read up on them beforehand anyway. I always find these local, unofficial guides are a bit of a crapshoot – occasionally you get someone brilliant, but other times it’s a young guy with basic English who’s just memorised a few facts. Having spent $30 on the ascent, I didn’t want to chance it.

Go late

Sunset from Sigiriya

Climbing up takes about 30 minutes if you go directly and isn’t particularly strenuous. There are lots of places to stop for photos. I’d recommend doing what I did and going in the late afternoon, both because it wasn’t too hot when climbing up, and because after 5pm the crowds thinned out dramatically. Last entry is at 5pm, but it wasn’t until about 6.30 that the guard started clearing us last few stragglers off the site. By then, it was just me and a couple of others up at the top, soaking in the remnants of King Kasyapa’a grand vision.

And Kasyapa himself? Well, despite building his house on a rock, as St Peter advocated, his reign and city were both short-lived. As he’d feared his brother returned to seek vengeance and claim the throne. Kasyapa went to fight but, betrayed by his brother in law and chief general, he was defeated. Legend has it he killed himself after realising the collapse of his kingdom and rule. His brother, Moggellana, abandoned the rock palace and returned the capital to Anuradhapura.

Moral of the story: don’t kill your dad.

Getting there:

I stayed in Dambulla and caught a local bus to Sigiriya. This cost 50 rupees and took about 40 minutes.

As I stayed for sunset I missed the last bus back to Dambulla and had to take a tuk-tuk. This cost 900 rupees, which I was not happy about, but nobody was offering lower, and I had little choice. Worth it for the sunset views though!

A Sri Lankan Richard III?

*What is narrated is the traditional story. More recently, some pesky historians working with later documents have suggested that Kasyapa may have been the victim of a Richard III-esque hatchet job by later rulers, and that he may not have been the parricidal monster of myth at all. Who knows the truth, but I reckon Shakespeare would have gone with the traditional version!

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